Method in the madness

by Jyoti Rahman

Published in the Daily Star on 22 January 2010.

This piece discusses the politics of name-change.

THIS is madness — that’s been the refrain on the government’s decision to rename the country’s major international airport. As the Daily Star editor asks: For God’s sake why? Possible answers to Mr. Anam’s questions can be found in an earlier article, All in, by Zafar Sobhan, one of his colleagues. Though this be madness, yet there is method in it. It’s just that this method could derail Bangladesh for a long time to come.

The official reason for the name-change — that following the 5th Amendment verdict, there should be nothing named after Ziaur Rahman, whose rise to power is now deemed illegal –doesn’t hold water as the cabinet discussed this weeks before the verdict was upheld.

Mr. Sobhan’s piece points to a different reason: this is part of an ideological offensive. He says, rightly, that today’s Bangladesh, warts and all, reflects ideas, priorities, and philosophical directions set by Ziaur Rahman over 30 years ago. Since Awami League’s ideas and philosophies are different from those of Zia’s, following the landslide victory of 2008, it is only expected that they would want to reorient the course of the Republic. To quote Mr Sobhan:

It is also important to deligitimise Zia and to bring his wrongs to public attention, so that his carefully cultivated and sanitised public image, that remains a corner-stone of the BNP’s electoral appeal, is called into question. It is this thinking that is behind the move to rename the airport.

However, one cannot imagine a more hypocritical method to launch this ideological offensive. Since both parties support parliamentary democracy and market economy, the ideological fault-line between the government’s politics and that of Zia must revolve around secularism and the role of religion in politics. How is renaming the country’s major airport after a 14th century religious leader a nod to secular values? What kind of secular Bangladesh are we heading to where the first thing anyone arriving to the country sees is an airport named after a religious figure?

Or perhaps this is not about ideology. Perhaps this is pure politics. Perhaps, this, along with the statements about Zia’s dead body, or the lease on the opposition leader’s house, is part of a political tactics to keep the opposition distracted?

If that is so, then could this be a serious overreach? Anecdotally, response of the urban educated class that the Awami League worked so hard to capture with positive politics in 2008 is one of extreme disappointment. The party leadership might think the government could do without these “bubble folks.” Again, to quote Mr. Sobhan:

Those of us who would prefer a politics of inclusiveness and compromise might dismiss the move as counter-productive and suggest that it makes the AL look petty and small-minded. They know this, but are willing to take the hit. They figure that people don’t really care that much about issues that do not hit them in their pocket-book, such as renaming of airports, and so it won’t hurt them with the public.

But is it just the Anglophone elites that have a problem with this? According to the Daily Star-Nielsen poll from January, the public resoundingly rejects the politics of name-change.

At a time of worsening law and order, rising inflation, and stifling infrastructure bottlenecks, exactly how out-of-touch is the government to think that this won’t hurt them?

Perhaps the government figures that, given the woeful organisational mess that is the BNP, any street agitation would be small scale affairs. But let’s not forget, Dhaka is an urban jungle that is always tinder away from explosion.

And the new name for the airport could have dangerous blowbacks. If this is a cynical move to thwart BNP from renaming the airport should it return to power some day, then has anyone considered the possibility of Bangabandhu Avenue being renamed Hazrat Muhammad Sharani?

When the prime minister warned the BDR rebels to not try her patience, there was an echo of dabaye rakhte parba na. When she comments about a dead body, there is an echo of her rival’s birthday party. If the perception again develops that “all politicians are bad” — who gains? Have we already forgotten 1/11? Does the government not realise that the next time there is an extraordinary intervention, it may well be against Awami League, with major players acting more decisively than the dithering duo of 2007?

With an unequivocal mandate, Awami League has every right to chart a different course for the nation than that set by Zia. Implementing a secular education policy or trying the war criminals who lead the major Islamist party would be good ways to ensure an ideological reorientation. It’s sad to see that the government is instead relying on cheap, divisive, reactionary tactics.

The late Ahmed Safa reputedly said: When Awami League wins, it wins alone, but when it loses, the whole nation loses. The prime minister has a chance to prove him wrong. Her Digital Bangladesh agenda met the approval of the harshest donors only a few days ago. That vision will be endangered when the public sees the government acting as if it has no agenda and only wants to thrive on controversies and distractions.

Will the prime minister prove Mr. Safa wrong, or will she set the nation up for a loss?

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